Dismantling a ‘Libertarian’ Argument for Restricting Immigration

Few topics seem to trigger strong emotions like the question of immigration.  The body of classical liberal and libertarian philosophy is full of people who espouse laissez-faire positions on the movements of goods and investment across borders, then completely reverse this position when it comes to the free movement of people.  Much of the opposition seems willing to abandon liberty, even as it claims to be promoting liberty.

The Simple Argument in Favor of Open Borders:

I have a right to do business with whomever I want so long as they are willing and able to do business with me.

The Simple Argument in Favor of Open Borders Explained in Greater Detail:

I have a right to do business with whomever I want so long as they are willing and able to do business with me.  So long as that person does not trespass on someone else’s property or steal anyone else’s property in  order to do business with me, no one else has the right to physically restrain me from doing business with them.  As I wrote in an earlier post:

No, when confronted with a person who desires to leave Mexico, purchase a plane ticket from an airline, fly to Atlanta, rent an apartment from a property owner, find employment in a factory, all of which are peaceful transactions that any individual should be free to do, the vast majority of White Nationalists cheerfully and openly call upon others to thwart these peaceful transactions at every turn. They want armed men to prevent him from stepping off the aircraft, from being allowed to rent the property, from being allowed to enter an employment contract with the factory, from driving on public roads, etc. They wish to force all these transactions to be constrained for people who aren’t members of the White race.

When a person considers how limits on immigration are put into effect, one immediately can see that liberty is destroyed, not enhanced by such restrictions.  The armed man preventing an airline from permitting a paying customer from boarding, preventing a man from renting an apartment, or from selling his labor services to a factory is attacking not only the man whom they are trying to keep out of the country, but those with whom that man wishes to do business.  These restrictions inherently involve attacks on liberty.

The ‘Libertarian’ Argument Against Open Borders

An interesting argument is one leveled by Dr Hans-Herman Hoppe:

The relationship between trade and migration is one of elastic substitutibility (rather than rigid exclusivity): the more (or less) you have of one, the less (or more) you need of the other. Other things being equal, businesses move to low wage areas, and labor moves to high wage areas, thus effecting a tendency toward the equalization of wage rates (for the same kind of labor) as well as the optimal localization of capital. With political borders separating high- from low-wage areas, and with national (nation-wide) trade and immigration policies in effect, these normal tendencies—of immigration and capital export—are weakened with free trade and strengthened with protectionism. As long as Mexican products—the products of a low-wage area— can freely enter a high-wage area such as the U.S., the incentive for Mexican people to move to the U.S. is reduced. In contrast, if Mexican products are prevented from entering the American market, the attraction for Mexican workers to move to the U.S. is increased.

Domestic free trade is what is typically referred to as laissez-faire capitalism. In other words, the national government follows a policy of non-interference with the voluntary transactions between domestic parties (citizen) regarding their private property. The government’s policy is one of helping to protect its citizens and their private property from domestic aggression, damage, or fraud (exactly as in the case of foreign trade and aggression).

According to proponents of unconditional free immigration, the U.S. qua high-wage area would invariably benefit from free immigration; hence, it should enact a policy of open borders, regardless of any existing conditions, i.e., even if the U.S. were ensnarled in protectionism and domestic welfare. Yet surely, such a proposal strikes a reasonable person as fantastic. Assume that the U.S., or better still Switzerland, declared that there would no longer be any border controls, that anyone who could pay the fare might enter the country, and, as a resident then be entitled to every “normal” domestic welfare provision. Can there be any doubt how disastrous such an experiment would turn out in the present world?. The U.S., and Switzerland even faster, would be overrun by millions of third-world immigrants, because life on and off American and Swiss public streets is comfortable compared to life in many areas of the third world. Welfare costs would skyrocket, and the strangled economy disintegrate and collapse, as the subsistence fund—the stock of capital accumulated in and inherited from the past—was plundered. Civilization in the U.S. and Switzerland would vanish, just as it once did from Rome and Greece.

Put differently, while someone can migrate from one place to another without anyone else wanting him to do so, goods and services cannot be shipped from place to place unless both sender and receiver agree. Trivial as this distinction may appear, it has momentous consequences. For free in conjunction with trade then means trade by invitation of private households and firms only; and restricted trade does not mean protection of households and firms from uninvited goods or services, but invasion and abrogation of the right of private households and firms to extend or deny invitations to their own property. In contrast, free in conjunction with immigration does not mean immigration by invitation of individual households and firms, but unwanted invasion or forced integration; and restricted immigration actually means, or at least can mean, the protection of private households and firms from unwanted invasion and forced integration. Hence, in advocating free trade and restricted immigration, one follows the same principle: requiring an invitation for people as for goods and services.

In contrast, the advocate of free trade and free markets who adopts the (conditional) free immigration position is involved in intellectual inconsistency. Free trade and markets mean that private property owners may receive or send goods from and to other owners without government interference. The government stays inactive vis-à-vis the process of foreign and domestic trade, because a willing (paying) recipient exists for every good or service sent, and hence all locational changes, as the outcome of agreements between sender and receiver, must be deemed mutually beneficial. The government’s sole function is that of maintaining the trading process (by protecting citizen and domestic property). However, with respect to the movement of people, the same government will have to do more in order to fulfill its protective function than merely permit events to take their own course, because people, unlike products, possess a will and can migrate. Accordingly, population movements, unlike product shipments, are not per se mutually beneficial events because they are not always —necessarily and invariably—the result of an agreement between a specific receiver and sender. There can be shipments (immigrants) without willing domestic recipients. In this case, immigrants are foreign invaders, and immigration represents an act of invasion. Surely, a government’s basic protective function includes the prevention of foreign invasions and the expulsion of foreign invaders.

This argument suffers from a critical flaw: it blurs the distinction between invasion, where someone trespasses on the property of another, and that of legitimate sales of land or rental of land.  If my neighbor chooses to sell his land to a person from Mexico, it is a voluntary trade between two individuals and not a unilateral expropriation of property.  A squatter who seizes the house can be dealt with as a trespasser.  Where the criminal comes from – Canada, West Virginia, or from the immediate neighborhood – is absolutely irrelevant.  The notion that someone should be prevented from entering a locale because they might trespass in the future or have a higher time preference than others is ridiculous.

To apply Dr. Hoppe’s analysis to trade goods, a person could unilaterally dump unwanted garbage on the land of another.  Should we then restrict the voluntary trade in bags of garbage between garbage producers, landfill companies and recyclers?  The very question is absurd!

Nor are Dr Hoppe’s predictions of societal collapse given free immigration any more plausible than the dark prediction that allowing women to choose how many children they should bear will lead to the extinction of the human race, or that allowing people to choose what they study in school will lead to an oversupply of engineers and an undersupply of farmers.

Furthermore, Dr Hoppe is being disingenuous – the Roman and Greek civilizations did not collapse due to open immigration.  To the contrary! Constantine’s decree that permanently tied farmers and their descendants to whatever patch of land they were farming at the time – in effect the most restrictive prohibition on human migration that one can conceive of – is widely credited with wrecking the Roman economy to the point where the collapse of the empire was inevitable (It should be noted that the collapse of the Roman empire had many midwives).  Greece, on the other hand, collapsed due to not open migration, but Roman conquest.  Roman soldiers arrived in Greece commanded by officers who wished to plunder the province, exact revenge for Greek military interventions in Italy, and make a name for themselves in their drive to advance along the cursus honorum.  These are hardly the actions of people who wished to live in Greece in order to partake of the opportunities for living a fulfilling productive life there.

In the United States, 5% of the human race has enjoyed the right to move freely for several decades now.  The polities they live range from dirt poor places such as the backwoods of West Virginia to the exclusive gated mansions of Florida.  Yet society does not collapse!  The underclasses of New Orleans do not set up squatter camps in Central Park!

Forced Integration

Dr Hoppe repeatedly describes two undesirable outcomes of an open borders policy.  The first, invasion, we have dispensed with.  The second, forced integration is far more interesting.  What is forced integration?  It occurs when a person is compelled to do business or associate with someone whom they do not want to associate with.  This can be the result of compulsion, as occurs when – under the dictates of the 1964 Civil Rights Act – a shop owner is no longer permitted to exclude people from his shop based on the color of their skin and opens his shop to dark skinned people ou of fear of arrest.

However, forced integration can mean that a shop owner is forced by the changes in the demographics of potential shoppers to make the choice between closing down his shop or allowing people he would prefer to exclude into his shop.  In the latter case he is not the victim of violence.  If a racist who wishes to exclude whites from his shop had historically turned a profit,  but due to the passage of time now finds the pool of non-white potential customers no longer supports his business, and concludes that his business would be profitable if it invited whites into the store, then his choice of liquidating his business, expanding his client base, or selling his business is no different than the one faced by his neighbor the cooper, who finds that the invention of something called the 50 gallon drum has resulted in the evaporation of 99% of the demand for barrels and must make drastic changes to his business if he wishes to keep it.

Unless a person lives as an autarchic hermit, he or she has to interact with others to survive.  The need for these interactions opens the possibility that sometimes a person will be confronted by choices or people that are disagreeable.  In a free society, mere disagreeableness does not provide a person with the grounds to intervene in the affairs of others.  A person who wishes to avoid the sound of Spanish is free to decide how much they are willing to pay to ensure they never hear the tongue spoken in their presence.  They may find that the cost is more than they are willing or able to pay.  However, the fact that they find such a thing disagreeable in no way gives them license to aggress against their neighbors.

How Shall the Cat Be Belled?

Dr. Hoppe is very vague as to how restrictions can be enforced in a libertarian manner.  Certainly a rancher in Arizona who has migrant workers trespassing on his property, damaging fences, and fouling his water tanks can legitimately repel the trespassers under a libertarian political order.

But how can a person who lives in North Carolina who finds the sound of Spanish distasteful prevent people from speaking Spanish in her presence?  She could arrange her movements to ensure she stays away from Spanish speakers – a legitimate libertarian response.  But is she tries to prevent Spanish speakers from traveling into stores she frequents, stores whose owners want to welcome them, she must threaten those people with violence – again in violation of libertarian principles.

The State as the Corporation

One interesting justification I’ve heard advanced by people who are sympathetic to Dr Hoppe’s arguments is that the state can be treated as a corporation that owns the public roads, ports etc, and that it can legitimately dictate who is permitted to enter a port, while ejecting unwanted trespassers.  The citizens are then shareholders, and the management is merely choosing, like a restaurant chain, to exclude certain classes of people from its facilities.

This is a seductive argument, until one realizes that in practice it is not the case at all.  IBM could, for example, decide to prevent anarchocapitalists from entering its facilities in Armonk NY.  However, if I were to purchase some land in Armonk, arrange for an airport to be built on it, and fly into the town, IBM would have no cause to physically prevent me from landing on my airstrip. If, on the other hand, I were to by a ranch in Mexico and another in Arizona, build airstrips on both properties and start shuttling passengers between them, the state would still intervene to prevent these flights.

ICE agents have as much moral justification to show up on my Arizona ranch to arrest me and seize my property as agents working for IBM do: none at all.

The Welfare State

Dr Hoppe is correct, though, to fear the consequences of an open borders policy coupled with a generous welfare state.  One need only to look at the examples of France and England to see the consequences of allowing people to immigrate, denying them the ability to earn a living, and offering them a monthly stipend to sit around and do nothing.   Of course, in such societies the problem is not limited to immigration itself, but any form of population growth. Every new baby born to someone living in the country has a similar chance of ending up as a strain on the capital stock of the country.  Banning immigration serves only to prolong the inevitable collapse, and that if one accepts this as justification for preventing people from immigrating into some country, then one must also, to be consistent, be in favor of restricting births of new babies.

But so what?  Why should we expect further limits on liberty for the sole purpose of propping up a hostile political and economic regime?  What loyalty do we owe the sort of state that seeks to create a permanent class of dependent, unemployed and unemployable?  Should we be like the German chaplains who blessed the Wermacht soldiers as they pushed off to loot, pillage and the Ukraine, because it was politically expedient to do so?  Should we sacrifice our principles because they are inconvenient?

We see Dr Hoppe’s approach reflected in the fair weather ‘free market’ economists who are screaming for the state to intervene in an economy that was wrecked by such interventions in the past, simply because they fear the coming storm.  In the end, all they do is prolong the day of reckoning by sacrificing their reputations and credibility.   It is in times of trouble that we must stick to our principles.  They are our compass.  We don’t need a compass on days when the weather is fair, the visibility unlimited, and the seas are calm.  We need our compass most  when the rain pounds down, the waves tower over our masts, for that is when the way forward is the most unclear, and errors of judgment have the most dire consequences.

Fiat justitia ruat caelum – Let justice be done, even though the heavens may fall.

Wrapping Up

All of the ‘harms’ caused by free migration fall into one of two categories:

1) Acts of trespass against legitimate property owners, which should be dealt with after the fact by punishing actual wrongdoers.

2) Acts that are legitimate in a free society that make some people uncomfortable.  The latter are not legitimately the subject of preventative or retributive violence.

Neither of these categories, alone or together, justifies the aggression required to enforce a restrictive immigration policy.  The damage to society done by the actions required to enforce a restrictive immigration policy are far more damaging to the fabric of society and its capital stock than any peaceful migration of people.

Additional Reading
Walter Block and Anthony Gregory’s rejoinder in a fall 2007 issue of the Journal of Libertarian Studies is worth reading.

I am an anarcho-capitalist living just west of Boston Massachussetts. I am married, have two children, and am trying to start my own computer consulting company.
  • http://24ahead.com/s/mexican-government What the author forgot about

    In a fantasy world, this post might make some sense. However, in the real world, millions of people coming here from one country give the sending country power inside the U.S. And, that’s very a harm, as it reduces the control of U.S. citizens over their own country. See my name’s link for hundreds of examples.

    There’s much more that could be said, but I’ll save that for a site that has some influence.

  • http://ericsundwall.com Eric Sundwall

    Good post. Hoppe does seem ostensibly inconsistent with application of principle and logic in this regard.

    It’s not like immigration per se demands any rights of citizenship or expectation of entitlement. I undertook a counter reaction to a similar Kinsella piece in 2005.

  • http://publiusendures.blogspot.com Mark

    Well said, tarran.

  • Michael Seebeck

    Hoppe’s argument is illogical and inconsistent, but why be complicated? The argument is very simple: “Good fences make good neighbors.”

    Open borders are fine so long as the openings are limited to public egress points. The level of coyotes and mules trespassing on private lands along the border is a huge problem and leaving it unaddressed is contrary to both constitutional and property concerns.

  • http://www.no-treason.com Joshua Holmes


    If they could come here freely, why would they trespass? They’d just take the bus in.

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org/author/tarran/ tarran

    One point that people complaining about migrants who trespass on private property often miss is that the migrants are seeking the easiest route from Point A to Point B. Why pay a coyote thousands of dollars and trek through miles of desert when, under an open borders policy, a migrant could simply purchase a $49 bus ticket?

  • Nick M.

    (shakes fist)


  • thomas

    Its simple: until we can take care of all our fellow citizens and have worked out the internal problems our criminal government has created, we have no business taking in anyone for any reason. To do so makes no sense.

  • Ryan

    Thomas, in what way are we “taking in anyone” by
    permitting them to live here? It sounds like you
    are assuming that every new person that arrives
    will be provided a living at the coerced expense
    of everyone else. In many states, this is no longer the case for the specific case of immigraants (though it should be extended to the natural-born citizens too).

  • http://thicketandthorp.wordpress.com Jonathan

    It’s truly staggering how people who one minute will be grousing about the evils of the welfare system will the next minute decry immigrants for threatening to undermine the very welfare system they profess to hate. When faced with the threat of Latino immigration, rightist breasts suddenly swell with concern for the American poor- miraculous!

  • http://www.newjerusalemtimes.com Christian Livingstone


    Nice article.

    I think I’ve heard (via MP3) Hoppe suggest that the point of immigration actually exposes the poor reason for State extortion to finance welfare systems for existing “citizens”, and not just for the added burden “aliens” may pose to a hostile State. Although, I personally have no allegiance, political residency, citizenship, or vested interest in any State, or the United State, even thought I was born on the North American continent.

    But it seems to me that only those with some statist or racist greed are the ones most threatened by allowing all people and economies to find their natural equilibrium on planet Earth, without regard to hostile boundaries assigned by a parasitic ego mass, known as a State, or a United State.

    And what a ridiculous statist proposition it is to assign a label of “illegal alien” to a human being born on their own planet.

    Or, like the Robert Orben quote says:

    “Illegal aliens have always been a problem in the United States. Ask any Indian.”


    “The love of one’s country is a splendid thing. But why should love stop at the border?” ~ Pablo Casals

    Peace to you all,
    C. Livingstone

  • http://www.DennisLeeWilson.com Dennis Wilson

    You have done fine work on this subject, especially your demolition of Dr. Hoppe’s position. With all the holes that have been pointed out to him–here and elsewhere, I am surprised that he still maintains such an un-scholarly and untenable position on immigration.

    For those who may be interested in additional material,

    In one of my several articles about The Unnecessary War Against Immigrants ( http://dennisleewilson.com/simplemachinesforum/index.php?board=4.0 ), I address an argument by Hoppe similar to his corporate view presented above, in which I point out a simple logic error and I conclude that rather than closing borders, “Mr Hoppe’s argument is sufficient grounds for ENFORCING open borders!” Link is http://dennisleewilson.com/simplemachinesforum/index.php?topic=16.0

    On the welfare/immigration issue, I address additional points that were not made above (“Ask The Right Question”–link http://dennisleewilson.com/simplemachinesforum/index.php?topic=12.0 ) and, for the Constitutionally oriented, I point out that “Immigration control is UN-Constitutional!”

    Best regards.

  • Rev. J Shaffer

    I’ve never seen such a bunch of clueless in my life.
    The whole thing can be explained easily (for those of you needing small words), and fits within the Libertarian outlook.

    If you come to my house through the gate meant for that purpose, and knock on my door requesting entrance. . . good for you!
    If you jump the fence into my yard, you’ve got no right to complain if you get shot – you’re trespassing.

    I live in the San Joaquin Valley. . . and the rest of the country is my back yard – enter through the gate or suffer lethal consequences.

    For those of you not capable of understanding the last example. . . here is one even you can comprehend:
    When you’re making a stew, the proper ingredients in correct proportions makes for a delicious meal – When you have unregulated dumping of random ingredients, you end with unpalatable slop.

    Sorry. . . can’t dumb it down any more than that. . . you either get it, or you don’t.

  • http://www.newjerusalemtimes.com Christian Livingstone


    Mr. self-proclaimed “Reverend”, I’m guessing that you’re a state-incorporated clergy person.

    It follows that you would speak up for statist idolatry.

    But it is quite funny to me that you would use the gate-crasher metaphor while admitting that you live in the “San Joaquin Valley”.

    You see, you’re a double gate-crasher, ideologically speaking:

    Once via ethnic cleansing of Native Americans.

    Twice via US warfare and expropriation of the Mexician Southwest.

    You get it now, don’t you!

    Peace to you all,
    C. Livingstone

  • thinker1776

    Perhaps Hoppe and other libertarians who support border restrictions would explain how they are going to get the money for guards, vehicles, walls, fences, and guns. Through coercive taxation?

    Like many a poor idea, border control would fail if it had to find its funding through free market, voluntary exchanges.

  • Terry Hulsey

    Mr. Tarran,
    As a libertarian, you will certainly admit that homeowners have a right to form a homeowners’ association and to forbid entry to anybody they care to forbid, including minorities. That is, the homeowners freely exercise their right to collectively exclude anyone or any group they choose. Imagine that this association is a bit larger — say the extent of a nation.

    Of course your retort is that everyone must agree to the exclusion. However, this fails when you make yourself liable for the invitation. Suppose out of some act of charity or self-interest you invite to the U.S. former Mexican criminals and rent to them your apartments. Are you willing to pay for the absolutely guaranteed increased incidence of crime? Are you willing to make this payment for the life of your invitees?

    Until you are willing to explicitly pick up that bill, it seems reasonable that this larger homeowners’ association assume an implicit denial of that liability.

    “Fiat justitia, pereat mundus” seems to be the cry of an ideologue. If something smells fishy, I myself wouldn’t swallow it just because my “principles” (so-called) told me it was wholesome: I’d re-examine the principles.

  • Justin Bowen

    For those of you not capable of understanding the last example. . . here is one even you can comprehend:
    When you’re making a stew, the proper ingredients in correct proportions makes for a delicious meal – When you have unregulated dumping of random ingredients, you end with unpalatable slop.

    I don’t know about you, but when I’m making my stew, I throw as much meat and vegetables of all varieties in as I can and mix it all together. I throw in beef, tomatoes, potatoes, snow peas, peppers, onions, carrots, okra, corn, some S&P, and a bunch of different spices. Granted, I don’t throw the tomatoes in at the same time as the potatoes, but it all gets in there. When it has all cooked enough, I end up with a big bowl of slop that I dip my cornbread in.

    Now, when I’m baking my cornbread, I only throw in those ingredients that the recipe calls for and only in the amounts that the recipe calls for. When it has all cooked enough, I end up with a nice little pan of cornbread muffins (I make mine into muffins) that I dip in my stew.

    Do you know what the best part of my meal is? Both parts. Don’t get me wrong, I love my stew. The flavor of each ingredient meshes with the flavor of each other ingredient to make a wonderful taste that sets my taste buds on fire. Sometimes I add a little too much potatoes or tomatoes, but that doesn’t mean that my stew is ruined. It just means that I have a different flavored stew than the last stew that I made. By going at it in a haphazard kind of a way, I get something new every time.

    My stew alone, however, just doesn’t seem right without that cornbread. I need that one powerfully-flavored muffin so that I can soak up the goodness of my stew. My muffin tastes great alone, just like everything that I cook. I can slap some butter on it and just revel in its moistness and delicious corny flavor as I bite into it. However, without that stew, it just isn’t the same. My cornbread, my single-flavored cornbread, needs its stew. It’s entire reason for existing is to soak up all of that goodness.

    Without that stew, my cornbread is just a muffin that just isn’t satisfying enough to call a meal; I need my meats and vegetables AND my grains. Without that cornbread muffin, my stew is just a stew that isn’t satisfying enough to call a meal; I need my grains AND my meats and vegetables.

    The moral of my dinner is this: if you want a wonderful society in which everyone is made better by their interactions with different people who have different ideas, it’s best to throw them all in together and let them stew for a bit. If you want a bland society where everyone ends up the same as everyone around them and where no new ideas are introduced, it’s best to keep everyone separated.

  • Pingback: Seeking to understand immigration and national borders at Morality101.net()

  • http://www.thelibertypapers.org/author/tarran/ tarran

    The good Rev. J. Shaeffer seems to be claiming ownership over the entire United States and announcing that he will defend his property with deadly force. Mr Shaeffer, out of curiosity, what do you do when one of your neighbors tries to mow your lawn claiming falsely that he owns it? Are your neighbors aware that your are claiming ownership of the land their houses sit on and threatening to shoot them if needed to exercise that right?

    Also what is this business about comparing society to a stew? The chef mixes a stew to satisfy someone’s tastes. Are you claiming that your society must be peopled in a manner appropriate to your tastes? Wow, what megalomania! Let me guess, you want people to check with you before they decide to reproduce, right? Can’t have the wrong genes being propagated without conscious control, now, can we?


    Homeowners do indeed have a right to form an association. However, they can’t force somone to join at gunpoint. The U.S. government, when it passes a law stating that nobody can get a job without their permission, imposes that law upon people who don’t want to live by it. It’s one thing to impose a law (such as a prohibition on murder), which prohibits the violation of a natural right of an individual. It’s another to impose a law which violates that natural right known as freedom of association. You can marry someone and choose to waive your right to have sex with other people. The government can’t morally pass a law that forces you to marry someone against your will.

    That is why I am impatient with the Homeowner’s Association model since it is at best a horribly fatally flawed analogy. People can enter or leave such associations voluntarily. Usually when someone tries to withdraw from association with the United States government, if they don’t go into exile, they get shot.


    I presume you cleaned your room and completed all your chores before blogging on the internet right? After all, until your room is perfectly clean, spending your time on other things makes no sense… You see the absurdity of your position now?

  • bigterguy

    ” If, on the other hand, I were to by a ranch in Mexico and another in Arizona, build airstrips on both properties and start shuttling passengers between them, the state would still intervene to prevent these flights.

    ICE agents have as much moral justification to show up on my Arizona ranch to arrest me and seize my property as agents working for IBM do: none at all.”

    Correct. However you and your passengers would have no right to step off of your property.

    By flying over the intervening properties you would also have invaded the airspace of others.

    Immigration is a conflict between personal freedom of movement and property rights. I come down on the side of property rights.